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Pacific Islands Forum dances around Nauru tensions

Ben McKay -

An attempt by Pacific Islands Forum leaders to revisit a unity pact has sparked a walk-out by Nauru, showing tensions remain close to the surface at the pivotal regional body.

The Micronesian nation's delegation left a plenary session on Thursday (AEDT) to protest against a discussion over its preferred candidate for the position of Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) secretary general Baron Waqa.

PIF leaders downplayed the prospects of a fresh rift, but Nauru Prime Minister David Adeang was not seen among them when they travelled to the island of Aitutaki to continue talks.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he did not see Nauru depart the talks and rumoured splintering had been over-hyped.

"From what I've heard, emphasised by all the leaders who've spoken ... there's a great deal of unity," he said.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Adeang will join the other leaders later, or if his absence is a sign of greater troubles.

Leaders from the Pacific have gathered in Rarotonga this week for the annual PIF leaders' meeting.

The 18-nation grouping is a combustible forum given it represents nations as different as regional heavyweights Australia and New Zealand and micro-states such as Niue and Tuvalu.

The body is of huge importance to Australia, with Mr Albanese investing a mighty diplomatic effort into maintaining its place as the Pacific's primary decision-making group.

Australia pays the lion's share to fund its operations, while Foreign Minister Penny Wong has visited every PIF member since taking office to enhance ties.

This summit is missing leaders from four of the biggest six members: Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Zealand.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was given a handmade quilt at a welcome ceremony.

The centrepiece is the leaders' retreat, where one representative from each nation discusses the region's biggest issues behind closed doors in a day-long meeting.

This year, several issues have been added to the retreat agenda at the 11th hour.

One of those is the Suva Agreement, which caused Nauru's walk-out.

"The Suva Agreement has been raised for late inclusion," Niue Premier Dalton Tagelagi told AAP.

"It can be discussed privately on the retreat."

The Suva Agreement was a deal struck last year to keep Kiribati in the PIF after the Micronesian nation complained about a lack of power-sharing with its region.

Under the deal, the five members of Micronesia were allowed to choose the next PIF secretary-general and selected Baron Waqa.

The process and the choice have been highly controversial.

Mr Waqa, a former Nauru president, was deeply involved in Australia's asylum seeker processing centre in his nation and during his tenure, sacked the country's judiciary and led a crackdown on media.

Both he and Mr Adeang have been linked to an Australian Federal Police corruption probe into an Australian phosphate company operating in Nauru.

Critics say former Nauru president Baron Waqa is unfit for the secretary-general position.

Critics say Mr Waqa is unfit to lead PIF but members, including Australia and New Zealand, have backed Micronesia's decision, seeing it as crucial for unity.

"I'm not going to get into those issues," Mr Albanese said when asked about Mr Waqa's suitability for the job.

According to reports, Samoa's Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa put the Suva Agreement on the agenda intending to speak about the process, rather than re-litigate the elements of the deal.

However, with Nauru offended, PIF leaders scrambled to correct the misunderstanding behind their walk-out.

"There was no suggestion that we would revisit that decision," NZ representative Carmel Sepuloni said.

"There is a suggestion we should talk about the process moving forward to make sure that we're on the same page."

Leaders will wake on Aitutaki to take part in the retreat before Mr Albanese heads home on Friday.


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